Fast, Fun Fantasy: Song of the Dead by Sarah Glenn Marsh


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Song of the Dead is the sequel to Sarah Glenn Marsh’s debut Reign of the Fallen. I reviewed Reign of the Fallen here last year and enjoyed its voice and approach, though I found its pacing uneven, and its treatment of relationships not quite up to the highest mark, but it had voice in spades, and engaging characterisation.

Song of the Dead shares some of Reign of the Fallen’s flaws, but also its virtues. Adolescent master necromancer Odessa, having participated in a revolution that upended the rule of the Dead over her island home country of Karthia and helped to install a friend on the throne, has set off to see the world in the ship of another friend—the smuggler Kasmira, who’s been defying Karthia’s ban on intercourse with the rest of the world for quite some time, and is happy now that the ban’s been lifted. Odessa meant ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Queering Classic Fantasy Stories


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New year, new queer! If that’s not a catchphrase somewhere, it ought to be, and—as you may have guessed—queerness is the element that unites the stories I want to talk about this week. The presence of queer women in the stories I read is becoming so delightfully frequent as to begin to feel unremarkable, and I’m really enjoying this current state of affairs. It’s not something I feel I can allow myself to get used to, because it was a rarity for years.

I was too late to read Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Merry Happy Valkyrie in time for the Christmas it sets itself around. Mathilda is the only town in Australia where it always snows at Christmas. Weather in Tasmania is famously weird, but not usually that weird.

Lief Fraser’s a TV weather presenter, and when her bosses discover she comes from Mathilda, she’s sent home to ...

Swashbuckling Fantasy with Political Intrigue: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery by Curtis Craddock


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An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (2018), the first volume in Curtis Craddock’s The Risen Kingdoms series, was an extremely accomplished fantasy novel. It combined intrigue, adventure, and swashbuckling in a setting filled with airships and floating kingdoms, ancient religion, lost knowledge, and powerful magic. Its politics bore the influence of Renaissance Europe while its narrative approach held something of the flair of Alexandre Dumas. An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors set a strikingly high bar for any sequel to follow.

Fortunately, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery more than meets that bar. It’s just as good as its predecessor—if not better.

Isabelle des Zephyrs finished the events of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors in a position of strength and triumph. Her king, le Grand Leon (a figure based at least partially on Louis XIV, the Sun King), had appointed her ambassador to the Great Peace—and she had newly ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Phyllis Ann Karr’s Sword and Sorcery Novels


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Recently, Sonya Taaffe chanced to mention Phyllis Ann Karr in one of her blog posts. Karr has never been a prolific author of science fiction and fantasy, and she remains best-known for her Arthurian murder-mystery The Idylls of the Queen and for the pair of fantasy novels, first published in the 1980s, which I’m going to talk about here: Frostflower and Thorn (1980) and Frostflower and Windbourne (1982).

I can’t speak about the SFFnal literary scene of the 1980s from the point of firsthand knowledge, but from wide and indiscriminate reading, I formed the impression that it was something of a heyday for Sword and Sorcery, and especially for Sword and Sorcery stories that put female characters in major roles. That decade, alas, also seems to have revelled in the rape-and-revenge story, and a large amount of casual explicit violence, sexual and otherwise, in the middle of otherwise not-very-grim-at-all stories.

...

Elegant and Eloquent: A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard


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I always feel apologetic about collections. And anthologies, for that matter: I’m far less well read with regard to short fiction in the genres of the fantastic than I am with regard to novels and novellas. I know, as always, what I like. How that fits into wider trends… that often puzzles me.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone is Kat Howard’s first short story collection. It follows her first two novels, Roses and Rot and An Unkindness of Magicians, in being published by Saga Press, and like those two novels, it’s clear that A Cathedral of Myth and Bone is the work of a deft and accomplished writer, deeply influenced by fairy tale and fable, elfland and Arthuriana. As a collection, it’s unified by its interest in transformations and impossible journeys, in the entry of the numinous into the everyday and in connections between women—as sisters, as rivals, ...

Sleeps With Monsters: More Books to Look Forward to in 2019


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In a previous column, I outlined many of the sequels and series continuation books that I’m looking forward to in 2019. (Which I, like many people I know, continue to type “2018” as often as not. It feels very strange to be this far into the science fictional future of the 1980s. But that’s time for you.) In this column, I want to mention some of the standalone or series-opening novels that are due out in 2019, which I’m looking forward to very much.

Let’s start with two novels that I’ve been looking forward to ever since I heard the first whisper of their existence!

 

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night (Gollancz and Saga Press, March 5th) is a big-concept space opera that promises Bear’s trademark intelligence, wit, and verve. A team of salvagers run into a little more trouble than they’re entirely prepared ...

Sleeps With Monsters: What I’m Looking Forward to in 2019


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Personally, I’m looking forward to getting married to the woman whom I love. But that’s not exactly the kind of content for which you guys read this column, I think. (Although if you want to hear about wedding-planning-on-a-budget trials, I’m sure some of that will spill onto my Twitter feed in the coming year.)

2018 was a hell of a year, both in political terms, and for me, in personal ones. (I got engaged to be married! My fiancée and I bought a house!) It had some fantastic books in it, though, despite a political landscape determined to find higher and higher cliffs to dive from. Several of those fantastic books have sequels or continuations due out in 2019, which means I’m eagerly awaiting:

 

Alice Payne Rides by Kate Heartfield

Kate Heartfield, Alice Payne Rides (Tor.com Publishing, March 5th) is the sequel to weird and engaging ...

Snapshots of a Future: Stronger, Faster, And More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton


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I’m still not quite sure what to make of Arwen Elys Dayton’s Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful, out from YA imprint Delacorte Press. It feels less like a novel than a series of snapshots of a future in which humans have started to intensively modify themselves—first in life-saving surgeries, then expanding to increased intelligence and things like gills, culminating in a vast and diverse array of modifications and a society in North America which sets aside reservations for “Protos”—original, unmodified humans.

The last time I read a novel which provided a set of snapshots of a future and which actually worked both as a mosaic novel and as individual stories within that mosaic was over a decade ago now. The novel was Charlie Stross’s magisterial Accelerando, one hell of a long-form debut, and one which has coloured my view both of mosaic novels and of novels which are ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Swords and Salvage


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It seems appropriate to talk about Melissa Scott’s Finders and Ursula Vernon’s (writing as T. Kingfisher) Swordheart together. Although in terms of setting and tone they’re very different books—Finders is a space opera with elements of a thriller, a fast-paced adventure story that ends up shaped like an epic; Swordheart is a sword-and-sorcery story with a romance at its centre—they share an interest in relationships and in consequences, and in a certain underpinning of kindness that unites them despite their otherwise disparate elements.

Swordheart is Ursula Vernon’s latest novel, set in the same world as her astonishingly powerful duology Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine shortly after the end of the Anuket City war. Halla is a thirty-six-year-old widow who’s been working as a housekeeper for her great-uncle by marriage since her spouse’s death. When great-uncle Silas dies, he leaves her everything—but his family believe all ...

A Banal Mediation on Evil: City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun


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The extent to which award-winning Korean novelist Hye-Young Pyun’s City of Ash and Red (originally published in 2010, now translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell) is science fictional is entirely debatable. You can read it as science fiction, perhaps. But it’s a very literary sort of science fiction. Although the majority of the novel takes place in a city referred to as City K, in a country known only as Country C, there’s else nothing to suggest a futuristic or fantastic setting. Given that the novel’s main figure is nameless, called only “the man” throughout, and that one of the main themes winding its way through the narrative is anonymity, atomisation, anomie, the choice to refer to places by letters (and to districts by numbers) feels more like the past literary convention by which certain Victorian or Georgian books referred to such figures as “Lord M–, the Baron of ...

High-Stakes Space Opera: Mass Effect: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente


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Mass Effect: Andromeda: Annihilation is the third of three planned tie-in novels to Bioware’s fourth Mass Effect game, Mass Effect: Andromeda—a game that was a new departure for the space opera RPG series, and one that received mixed reviews. Coming after N.K. Jemisin and Mac Walter’s excellent Initiation, Catherynne M. Valente’s Annihilation has a lot to live up to. But Valente definitely delivers.

It’s almost impossible to talk about tie-in novels without talking about their relationship to the original property. Their relationship, and the relationship of the person doing the talking. I’m a Mass Effect fan, though I found Andromeda the weakest of the series in terms of characterisation and narrative structure. Valente may be most famous for her Fairyland novels (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of Her Own Making and its sequels), but it’s very clear that she’s also a fan of ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Science Fiction Romance from Ada Harper


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I came across A Conspiracy of Whispers and A Treason of Truths, the first two books Ada Harper (also known as A.J. Hackwith), quite by accident. A friend retweeted the publication announcement for A Treason of Truths into my timeline, with commentary along the lines of “empress/spymistress science fiction romance.” As you might imagine, it rather piqued my interest.

Since A Treason of Truths was the second book in the same continuity, I decided to begin at the beginning, with A Conspiracy of Whispers.

The novels are set in a far future, where after a cataclysm the human race has essentially been redesigned into infertile and fertile groups. People who can get pregnant, known as caricae, are rare; while people who can impregnate others, known as altuses, are slightly more common. People who can neither become pregnant nor impregnate, known as genta, are most common of all. ...

Fun With Paradoxes: Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield


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Kate Heartfield is a versatile and interesting writer. Her debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, a unique and vivid fantasy set in medieval Europe, came out just this year. Now we have Alice Payne Arrives, out of Tor.com Publishing’s novella line, a tale of highwaywomen, time travel, and trying to save the future. For certain values of save, at least.

One of the more enjoyable (but occasionally annoying) things about the Tor.com Publishing novellas is how many of them are intended as part of a series, as one part of a greater whole. Heartfield’s Alice Payne Arrives joins the likes of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, Spencer Ellsworth’s Starfire: A Red Peace, and Corey J. White’s Killing Gravity as the opening shot in what’s clearly a multi-part arc. That’s to say, Alice Payne Arrives is a delightful opening instalment, but it ends on cliffhangers—emotional or otherwise—for ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Brilliance and Fire


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Let’s talk palace intrigue and high fantasy with a side order of young queer women whose fates are in terrible peril and yet! by the end of the novel, still aren’t dead. Because that’s Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire, out this November from the new Little Brown YA imprint “Jimmy Patterson Presents.”

Lei is a daughter of the Paper caste. The Paper caste are fully human, without the part-demon animal-like appearance and strength of the Steel caste, or the even more pronounced animal-like appearance and strength of the Moon caste. Very few Paper caste families are members of the aristocracy: even fewer have any influence at the court of the Demon King, the despotic ruler of the kingdom in which Lei lives. Once, long ago, the castes had mutual respect and peace between them, but since the first Demon King conquered his way to pre-eminence, the ...

An All-Too Familiar Future: Restless Lightning by Richard Baker


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Space opera is one of my favourite things. I love military science fiction—at least, when I can get it without the requisite dose of awful politics and queer erasure that predominates (with some few exceptions) in military space opera. It’d be really nice not to have to accept thoughtless imperialism, cultures that look a lot like 19th-century-European-countries-in-space (sometimes with added Rome or Stalinist Russia analogues), and a complete absence of queer folks as the price of entry, but in most cases, that’s the best one can hope for.

Richard Baker’s Restless Lightning, sequel to last year’s Valiant Dust, is a cut above thoughtless imperialism, but to be honest, it isn’t precisely what I was hoping for out of military science fiction or space opera, either one.

Valiant Dust showed promise and potential, but also seemed to suggest that we could look forward to a view of the future that ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Queer Retellings with Women


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If you haven’t already read—or aren’t already planning to read—Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace, then I want to know what’s wrong with you. This short novel (49,000 words) is one of my favourite books of the year. It may in fact be my favourite, for the glittering precision of its worldbuilding—a postapocalyptic fantasy world ravaged by disease and decay, left that way by careless alien masters who have since vanished, in which humans and the occasional dragon build their lives amid the ruins.

When Yên, a failed scholar, is traded to a dragon to pay her village’s debt, she expects to die. Everyone knows that dragons kill. But the dragon—Vu Côn, one of the last of her kind still to walk the earth—has a use for Yên. She needs a scholar to tutor her headstrong children, impulsive, over-certain Liên and quiet, worried Thông. In ...

Corporate Space Piracy: Mutiny at Vesta by R.E. Stearns


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R.E. Stearns’ debut novel, Barbary Station, exploded its way close to my heart with its narrative of lesbian space engineers, pirates, and murderous AI. A measured, tensely claustrophobic narrative, it hinted that Stearns might be a voice to watch. Now in Mutiny at Vesta, Barbary Station‘s sequel, Stearns has written a worthy successor, one that makes me feel that tensely claustrophobic is the corner of slower-than-light space opera that Stearns has staked out as her playing field.

One can’t help but feel for Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir, the protagonists of both Barbary Station and now Mutiny at Vesta. They may have each other—they may now be married to each other—but they seem to have a decided knack for setting their courses out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Adda and Iridian turned to piracy to stay together. Now wanted criminals across the solar ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Atmospheric and Compelling Stories


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Due to the vagaries of e-publishing (and my personal preferences), I continue to only read Lois McMaster Bujold’s self-published novellas after Subterranean Press has picked them up and published them in gorgeous hardcover. The latest of these is Mira’s Last Dance, the fifth Penric and Desdemona novella to be published, and a direct sequel to Penric’s Mission.

Penric, scholar, healer, and temple sorcerer, was injured at the conclusion of Penric’s Mission. He and the betrayed general Adelis Arisaydia, and Adelis’s widowed sister Nikys, are still on the run, trying to get across the mountains from Cedonia into the (presumed) safety of the duchy of Orbas. Fate (or the Bastard, the god under whose auspices Penric and his resident demon Desdemona fall) takes them to a brothel in a small town whose inhabitants are currently suffering from a plague of bedbugs. Penric’s skills at removing such insects ...

Character-Driven Space Opera: There Before The Chaos by K.B. Wagers


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I’ve been thinking about how to review There Before The Chaos for weeks. K.B. Wagers’ fourth novel, the opening volume of a second trilogy about gunrunner-turned-empress Hail Bristol (star of Behind the Throne, After the Crown, and Beyond the Empire), it turned out to be the kind of character-driven, deftly-wrought, emotive space opera that I adore. And that I find difficult to discuss with any kind of measured distance or attempt at assessment. Does it live up to its predecessors? Does it succeed at what it sets out to do?

I’m not entirely sure I can tell, because it succeeds so well at being exactly the kind of book I wanted it to be. (Though I shake my fist at the cliffhanger ending! What a hook.)

Hail has survived the events of the Indranan Empire trilogy to be—relatively—secure on her throne, with a named heir ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Disgraced Witches and Norse Mermaids


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Thanks to my own peculiar interests, this is another queer-lady heavy column. Perhaps eventually it’ll get boring to keep coming across work that features women who love women—perhaps one day, we’ll reach the kind of excess that produces tedium, or at the very least complacency—but that day is not today.

You probably haven’t heard of Stephanie Ahn’s Deadline, but I mean to change that. This self-published short novel is an absolutely lovely piece of urban fantasy, fast-paced and hugely fun. (And when I say urban fantasy, I don’t mean paranormal romance: I mean urban fantasy in the noir-PI mold, reminiscent of Tanya Huff’s Vicki Nelson and Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden.)

Harrietta Lee is a disgraced witch, an outcast from the world she grew up in. She made a few bad decisions, and now, well. Her magic is tainted, different that it used to be, and she ...